Labour and the Tories must curb their totalitarian flirtations
by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
With the election not yet even officially called and still five weeks away, this is already the most sterile, empty and intellectually insulting campaign in memory. It also looks like turning into the nastiest, with dirty tricks, bugging, smears, and both parties vying in demagoguery. But even voters dismayed by the mendacity of the Blair government over Iraq and disgusted by Michael Howard's rabble-rousing may have failed to detect the full degree to which our politicians are veering towards totalitarian rhetoric.
When the Labour MP Kevin McNamara detected "a whiff of the gas chamber" in Howard's attack on Gypsies, he was exaggerating, just as the Tories who damned Labour for anti-semitism over its poster showing Howard as Fagin. Blair was right when he said that Howard isn't a racist, just an opportunist; equally, the New Labour team aren't Jew-baiters, just oafishly thick-skinned and unreflective.
Both sides are using the most infantile posters ever dreamed up by the affluent mountebanks of the advertising business, and it's a cynical consolation that the parties are almost certainly burning their money. Lord Leverhulme, the soap magnate, used to say that of every pound he spent on advertising, 10 shillings was wasted, but he didn't know which 10. This year, there's more reason than ever to think that close to 100p in the pound will be thrown away.
Wasted money or not, Howard's conduct has taken an ugly turn, beyond his previous reputation for having something of the night. There are audible totalitarian echoes to be heard from Tory headquarters, though funnily enough they aren't by any means all from the far right. In dealing with his own party, the leader of the opposition follows the old Muscovite principle of democratic centralism.
After sending Boris Johnson to Liverpool to make a recantation worthy of a defendant in a show trial, he has now demanded the removal of a Tory MP and a prospective parliamentary candidate in politburo fashion. Deselecting Adrian Hilton in Slough was bad enough, but Howard's treatment of Howard Flight raises graver issues.
Labour used to have a ferocious system for purging fellow travellers from the party but exercised it with some show of respect for constitutional niceties; Major Attlee didn't just click his fingers at a dodgy customer and say, "Off with his head." Until the prime minister asks for a dissolution, Flight is a Member of Parliament, and no MP should be ejected in this way. His local party is in turmoil, and he has consulted an expensive QC, but more to the point it looks like an infringement of the rights of parliament, and a case for the standards and privileges committee.
Again, it's consoling to reflect that this strong-arming cannot possibly be doing the Tories much good, or their leader's standing. While Howard may think he cuts a formidable figure, his behaviour is anything but a sign of strength, and he more and more resembles an earlier rightwing Tory leader. As the historian Sir Robert Ensor described him, "Bonar Law, not a strong man at any time, was in a weak position; and violent courses are the easiest for a politician so placed."
More chilling in terms of historical resonance is the slogan "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" This was doubtless dreamed up by Lynton Crosby, the Australian Svengali whom the Tories have imported, but it has ominous antecedents. Before his assassination in 1990, Rabbi Meir Kahane bestrode the wilder shores of American, and then Israeli, political life. He was an undisguised racist who got elected to the Knesset until its embarrassed members expelled him, but not before he had tried to introduce laws forbidding sexual relations between Jews and Arabs, and advocated the expulsion of all Palestinians from the West Bank in language even the Tories haven't yet used about asylum seekers: "Let me become defence minister for two months and you will not have a single cockroach around here."
And he campaigned on the slogan "I am telling you what each one of you thinks deep in his heart: there is only one solution"; or, more simply, "I say what you think." The clear implication is that the leader alone has the courage to voice the bitter resentments and dark thoughts that others are too squeamish to express out loud. Which is just what every extremist, left or right, has always said.
All this is noxious stuff, but can Labour really complain? Over the years of Blair's leadership, he and his cabal have themselves regularly echoed the rhetoric of fascism, from "New Labour" (as in Neue Ordnung) to "the third way", a phrase much used by fascists in the interwar years. At one time, the Blairites liked to tell us that we lived in a Young Country. Quite apart from the fact that this is simply wrong in terms of history or demography, it recalled Giovinezza, or Youth, the marching song of Mussolini's Blackshirts. We were endlessly told about the People's Government, People's Wimbledon, and even the People's Princess. It is terrifying that anyone should have been quite so tone deaf to memories of a Third Reich with its People's Courts and People's Car (Volkswagen).